23 fights on our 2023 MMA wish list: Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones, Conor McGregor’s return, more

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A new year means new fights.

The great year of 2022 has officially come to an end, and we’re just days away from beginning the new schedule of bouts for 2023. And with that comes fresh possibilities of seeing dream matchups come true across the world’s top MMA promotions, including UFC, Bellator, PFL, Rizin FF, One Championship, and others.

For 2022, MMA Junkie had 22 dream fights for the year and thankfully six of those bouts came to fruition. Well, we’re back, once again hoping to see returns from some dormant MMA greats, old rivalries get settled, and just simply wanting to witness history and greatness.

MMA is in a great spot to deliver all that and more, and with much excitement, we present MMA Junkie’s wishlist of 23 fights we’d like to see in 2023.

Ryan Hall vs. Bryce Mitchell

Every year, fighters get more and more well-rounded. The days of jiu-jitsu vs karate or any other variation involving a specialist are pretty much a thing of the past. However, there are some fighters that remain somewhat one-dimensional, and in the best way possible.

Ryan Hall, and to a lesser degree Bryce Mitchell, are rarities in the sport who have mainly stuck to one discipline, making them very fun to watch. Often, these two get paired up against distinct styles, so why not put them against each other?

Man, the scrambles and submission attacks between the two would be a delight.

Stephen Thompson vs. Michel Pereira

Dec 3, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Stephen Thompson (red gloves) reacts after fighting Kevin Holland (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

This one actually has a great chance of happening. Stephen Thompson has expressed interest in Michel Pereira and vice versa, but for whatever reason, the UFC has yet to make this fight.

This bout makes tons of sense, plus it has Fight of the Night written all over it. Even though he is turning 40 next month, Thompson proved to be still one of the best strikers in MMA in his beating of Kevin Holland this past December. Thompson’s title contention days are likely over, but he’s still got plenty of gas to fight at a high level and give fans a show. And that’s where Pereira comes in. The Brazilian is on the rise, in need of a big name, and willing to take risks to make fireworks.

This is an easy fight to put together that makes sense from every angle. “Wonderboy” vs. “Demeledor.” I’m sold.

Jose Aldo vs. Dominick Cruz

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 04: (R-L) Jose Aldo of Brazil punches Rob Font in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

A man can dream, right?

Jose Aldo vs. Dominick Cruz was on my list for 2022, and unfortunately, it didn’t come together. I know that Aldo retired, but I still feel like he needs a proper farewell: Ideally in Brazil, with the UFC paying homage to his career in the build up to the fight, and a fellow legend as dance partner. He got none of that in his last fight.

For the most part, like most people, I hate MMA unretirements/comebacks, but for Aldo, I’d be happy to hear he’s back. Aldo didn’t leave the sport on a bad losing streak, wasn’t getting finished. He left as a title contender with plenty of gas left, being 3-1 in his four most recent bouts.

I’d love to see Aldo get a proper goodbye against Cruz. For many years, when both were UFC and WEC champions, it was a dream fight that had many fans savoring. I want to see it, yes, even in 2023.

Larissa Pacheco vs Kayla Harrison 4

2022 PFL 10 Championships at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Friday, November 25, 2022. (Denis Kennedy / PFL)

Kayla Harrison needs this one back.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo lost to Larissa Pacheco in a massive stunner to close out the 2022 PFL season.

Look, I don’t want to make any excuses for Harrison, but she had it tough. Pacheco had three chances at beating her, and having lost twice, there were plenty of trial-and-error situations for Pacheco to learn from heading into that third fight. Harrison didn’t have that luxury. Also, Pacheco is legit. She’s a former Jungle Fights champion and has wins over Irene Aldana, Sarah Kaufman, and Karol Rosa.

Not taking anything away from Pacheco, quite the opposite, I think she’d beat a lot of top fighters today in the UFC.

I still think Harrison is a special talent, but before we can resume the talks about potential fights against Cris Cyborg or Amanda Nunes, Harrison needs to defeat Pacheco and do so convincingly. Until then, all other talk needs to be toned down. There’s a new champion in town.

Michael Chandler vs. Renato Moicano

Michael Chandler

Renato Moicano wants a money fight, and it’s time Michael Chandler fights someone outside the top five.

This is the fight to make for both. Also, it’s a good ol’ American Top Team vs. Kill Cliff FC rivalry.

Moicano turned a corner in 2022, drawing much attention with his ballsy performances and killer promos. And on the other hand, Chandler now finds himself 1-3 in his past four outings. Sure, Chandler is crazy talented, beyond durable, and extremely exciting. But if you want to continue fighting the elite, you need to be winning. A fight against Moicano seems like a perfect step back while also keeping a high potential for Fight of the Night.

Moicano deserves a big name at this point in his career, and Chandler needs to get some wind back in his sails. The two are at a perfect crossroads.

Patricio Freire vs. Aaron Pico

First of all, I hope Aaron Pico is having a speedy recovery from his shoulder injury, and I hope he’s able to return to the cage at 100 percent. And if that’s the case, I have a fight for him in mind.

Pico had his troubles in the past, but it seems a lot of those issues have been ironed out, and he’s now primed for top-notch competition. Sure, there’s still a lot to be learned, and I’m sure he’s not done improving, but he’s there, he’s one of the best featherweights in Bellator.

I think it’s time he meets champion Patricio Freire. It looks like A.J. McKee is going to stay at lightweight for the immediate future, making “Pitbull” vs. Pico the fight to make at 145 pounds. It’s a competitive fight on paper that matches up experience vs. youth.

Kyoji Horiguchi vs. John Dodson

Kyoji Horiguchi

Umm, this fight wasn’t even on my radar until New Year’s Eve, but I have to see it in 2023.

Watching Rizin FF 40: Bellator vs. Rizin, I saw two game fighters, who not so long ago in the UFC were talked about being some of the best flyweights on the planet. I know it’s been a few years, but Kyoji Horiguchi and John Dodson looked on point last week and are probably still among the best 15, maybe even 10, 125-pound fighters today.

You put together their skills, styles, and athleticism, and add soccer kicks and head-stomps, and you got a damn good fight. Horiguchi vs. Dodson is easily one of the best fights you can put together outside the UFC. Rizin FF has a real opportunity here to catch some eyes and potentially have a contender for Fight of the Year.

Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev

This one has pretty much the same logic as Chandler vs. Moicano.

It’s time for the old guard of the lightweight elite to start fighting outside the top five to either prove that they’re indeed above the other contenders or not, making way for a new top five.

Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev would be a key matchup at 155 pounds, and both guys are in need of each other. Gaethje, if still title hopeful, needs to defeat one of the younger, hyped-up contenders and Fiziev needs a household name in his resume. And from an action standpoint, these two would for sure notch Fight of the Night and possibly contended for Fight of the Year.

Brian Ortega vs. Ilia Topuria

Brian Ortega

I hate even bringing up Brian Ortega because I don’t want to match up any injured fighters. However, it’s been almost six months since Ortega suffered his shoulder injury. Also, Ilia Topuria recently fought and doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get back in the cage.

If the times align, this would be a treat for any MMA fan. There’s a case that maybe Ortega should get a tune-up fight, as he’s on a rough stretch and Topuria is a tough outing. But if Ortega wants to get the most relevant win possible, Topuria is your guy.

“El Matador” is unbeaten in his MMA career and after dominating Bryce Mitchell, he’s clearly a threat to the title. A win over Topuria is as legit as they come, and vice versa, Topuria could benefit plenty from beating a former title challenger.

Max Holloway vs. Dan Hooker

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JULY 01: Max Holloway poses on the scale during the UFC 276 ceremonial weigh-in at T-Mobile Arena on July 01, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

I think it’s time for Max Holloway to give 155 pounds another chance. I really do.

After going 0-3 against the featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, Holloway is now vetoed for any potential title shot discussion – unless Volkanovski happens to lose his belt, which doesn’t look very likely.

This means exciting, fan-friendly bouts will be the only thing available for him at 145 pounds. The problem here is that there aren’t many. Holloway has already fought almost everyone in the division. A move up to lightweight would bring a healthier weight cut and a sh*t ton of new, exciting matchups.

I think a showdown against Dan Hooker makes perfect sense. Both enjoy putting on a show, and who knows, it could be the start of another title run for Holloway. He can always have some fun at 155 and drop back down if things change at featherweight.

UFC lightweight champion vs. Beneil Dariush

Oct 22, 2022; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Beneil Dariush (red gloves) before his fight against Mateusz Gamrot (blue gloves) during UFC 280 at Etihad Arena. Mandatory Credit: Craig Kidwell-USA TODAY Sports

I swear, if Beneil Dariush gets skipped again, I’m going to lose my mind.

Yes, I want to see interesting, blockbuster fights, but I also like seeing a deserving contender get his due. This is the case with Dariush. He has the merit to challenge for the belt at lightweight, but because of politics and perhaps not being the most outspoken guy, Dariush has been passed by.

Well, I hope that’s not the case in 2023. Dariush has put together an incredible streak and merits a title shot. Hell, I wouldn’t even like to see him roll the dice again and take another non-title bout. I say have him as a back-up for UFC 284, and if the fight goes through and Islam Makhachev wins, then give him the shot.

Paddy Pimblett vs. Bobby Green

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 10: Paddy Pimblett of England stands in his corner as he’s introduced prior to facing Jared Gordon in a lightweight fight during the UFC 282 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 10, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Whether you thought Paddy Pimblett defeated Jared Gordon or not, the show must go on.

The UFC star certainly had a close call fighting Gordon at UFC 282, but at the end of the day, he got his hand raised and his career continues. I have my doubts that Pimblett is championship material, but I’ve been wrong before. Either way, Pimblett is on a winning streak and the rise must continue until he hits a roadblock.

I think a perfect escalation in opponent name and quality is Bobby Green. Green is not ranked, but at times he’s gotten close, and his defeats have only been against solid opposition. If Pimblett can get past Green, then maybe we’re onto something here. This matchup is an interesting clash of styles, and I’m sure we’d get some solid pre-fight soundbites too.

Usman Nurmagomedov vs. A.J. McKee

Scott Coker, Usman Nurmagomedov and Javier Mendez

Usman Nurmagomedov looked damn impressive in his campaign to catch Bellator’s 155-pound title.

And currently, looking at the long-time lightweight contenders, there doesn’t seem to be a promising choice to dethrone him. However, we may have a new lightweight in town in A.J. McKee.

McKee seems like he’s still interested in dropping back to 145 pounds to fight Patricio “Pitbull” in a trilogy and reclaim his featherweight belt. Although there’s no denying that would be a big and fun fight to watch, part of me just wants McKee to stay at lightweight because he does seem like a legit threat to Nurmagomedov’s title reign.

McKee would be by far the toughest test in Nurmagomedov’s career. It’s not crazy to think that McKee could top him in both the striking and wrestling department. These questions have me super intrigued by a potential fight between the two, and that’s why they made this list.

Marlon Vera vs. Sean O’Malley 2

The title picture in the UFC’s bantamweight division is a bit of a mess right now. But however things shake out, the rematch between Marlon Vera and Sean O’Malley is one that I need to see.

These two met early in their rise to title contention. “Chito” was coming off a controversial loss to Song Yadong and had yet to fight Frankie Edgar, Rob Font and Dominick Cruz. On the other hand, O’Malley was just four fights into his UFC career. Their talent was undeniable then, but it’s clear they’ve both improved dramatically since.

Vera won fair and square in their 2020 fight, but given the nature of the fight and the improvements from both sides, it’s uncertain how a rematch would go today. Both guys are also Fight Night bonus machines, promising a good scrap. If this does get booked, it needs to be five rounds.

Zhang Weili vs. Jessica Andrade 2

Aug 31, 2019; Shenzhen, China; Zhang Weili (blue gloves) and Jessica Andrade (red gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre. Mandatory Credit: David G. McIntyre-USA TODAY Sports

I might be alone on an island here, but I do think a rematch between Zhang Weili and Jessica Andrade is one of the best fights you can make in 2023.

Why is this matchup not talked about more? Why aren’t people campaigning for Andrade to get a crack at Weili?

I very much see their 42-second fight in 2019, which ended with Weili knocking out Andrade to become champion, under the same light as Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo. Don’t want to take anything away from Weili, I’d actually favor her in a rematch, but I don’t think that result is truly representative of how they match up.

Weili and Andrade are easily the strongest, the hardest hitting, most explosive fighters to ever compete in women’s strawweight. Outside a quick KO, a collision between the two should be an all-out war. Also, could be on a three-fight winning streak if victorious over Lauren Murphy later this month at UFC 283. I think that merits a shot.

Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo

Aljamain Sterling wears the title belt after defeating TJ Dillashaw in the bantamweight championship at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on October 22, 2022. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Everything points to Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo as the direction the UFC wants to go.

Dana White has suggested the bout in somewhat recent interviews, and both fighters have expressed interest in fighting each other next. But until that’s booked, it’s fair game for my fight wishlist for 2023.

Originally, I thought “Chito” Vera deserved the next shot based on merit alone, and I still stand by that. But now that he’s booked to fight Cory Sandhagen, the path to the title is wide open. That’s why I think a title fight between Sterling and Cejudo is the move given the circumstances.

You might hate Cejudo’s cringy antics, but there’s no denying he’s one of the best fighters to ever set foot in the octagon. We’re talking about an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling who walked away from the sport being a two-division UFC champion. Almost three years removed from his last fight, I wonder how much of that greatness is left and how would it fare against a very talented Sterling.

Cyril Gane vs. Stipe Miocic

France’s Ciryl Gane attends his men’s heavyweight fight during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event at the Accor Arena in Paris, on September 3, 2022. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP) (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

What the hell happened to Stipe Miocic?

The most successful heavyweight in UFC history lost his title to Francis Ngannou in 2021 and hasn’t been seen since. And let me remind you folks, Miocic is 1-1 with the champion. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to build up a trilogy fight with some momentum behind him.

Miocic last fought when he was 38 and he’s now 40. That’s not young, but in terms of heavyweight, that’s not that old either. There were rumors of a potential comeback against Jon Jones for the interim heavyweight title in 2022, but as the year went by, those seemed to have died down.

If Miocic wants to leave his career behind, that’s his choice. But there’s no denying, once the belt gets back in circulation, that the heavyweight title picture would be much more fun with him in it. I think a fight against Cyril Gane would be fireworks and one that could even be a title eliminator.

Conor McGregor vs. Jorge Masvidal

Conor McGregor vs. Jorge Masvidal just seems like such an obvious fight to make, and I’m surprised we’re now in 2023 and these two have yet to cross paths in the UFC.

Sure, this is not a championship fight, or even a title eliminator bout in any division, but it’s a damn good matchup. Say what you want about either guy, but they’re both high-level strikers with a good track record of wars and brutal knockouts. Oh, and on top of that, they just happen two of the biggest stars in the sport.

Some might deny it, but part of the fun of this sport is also what happens outside the octagon. The interviews, the press conferences, the faceoffs, it all adds to the show. McGregor and Masvidal are good at selling their craft, and a build up between these two would be fun. It’s also good seeing the sport get elevated into the mainstream audience from time to time, and these two would do just that.

Also, remember the whole thing Dana White said about Masvidal being too big for McGregor? Yeah, that’s not the case anymore.

Alex Pereira vs. Israel Adesanya 2

Nov 12, 2022; New York, NY, USA; Israel Adesanya (red gloves) and Alex Pereira (blue gloves) during UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Alcheh-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Pereira vs. Israel Adesanya gets talked about plenty for its factors surrounding the comeback, the dethroning of Adesanya, even the nature of the stoppage, which to some was controversial.

But you know what doesn’t get mentioned often enough when talking about this fight? That it was a scrap, one of the best in 2022.

I understand that Adesanya is 0-3 against Pereira in combat sports, but I still want to see a fourth meeting. Adesanya was en route to win a unanimous decision before getting stopped late in the fifth, he was unbeaten at 185 pounds, and defended the middleweight title five times. I think all that combined warrants an immediate rematch.

Pereira vs. Adesanya might’ve been the most high-level striking fight ever seen in the octagon. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, at all.

Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3

Aug 20, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Kamaru Usman (red gloves) fights Leon Edwards (blue gloves) during UFC 278 at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest, the rematch between Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman wasn’t the most exciting fight. But it wasn’t bad, either.

So some may wonder why this fight is so high up on my fight wishlist for 2023. Let me explain. I do want to see wars, we all do. But I refuse to only be the “just-bleed guy” here. There are several fights that I want to see because they’re important, they mean a lot to the history of sport, and they need to happen. The Edwards-Usman trilogy is one of them.

I’m extremely curious to see how Usman bounces back from such a bad knockout loss, and I also want to see what adjustments Edwards can make, as he was clearly losing that fight.

Khamzat Chimaev vs. Colby Covington

I want to see this fight more than any title fight you can make at 170 pounds.

I genuinely think Colby Covington is a tougher matchup for Khamzat Chimaev than the champion Leon Edwards and even Kamaru Usman. And it’s no disrespect to Edwards or Usman, styles make fights.

Covington can sure take a punch, he’s got cardio for days, a very high output, and can wrestle his ass off. This, on paper, seems like a good challenge for Chimaev. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Covington is the favorite on the betting odds if those two fought.

Coming off that weight debacle at UFC 279, Chimaev is in need of one more legit win, and Covington, it’s time he fights someone on a winning streak. You can’t deny a title shot to Chimaev if victorious against Covington, and vice versa. It’s a clear title elimination bout, and a damn good one.

(P.S. This need to be a five-round fight, not three)

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3

Nate Diaz, Conor McGregor

This fight has been on my wish list for three consecutive years now. Why? Because it’s the biggest rivalry in MMA to remain unsettled.

Outside Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, the Nate Diaz fights are the best events MMA has ever witnessed. These fights reached beyond the sport and became moments in pop culture. Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber, and whatever artists or celebrities were big at the time, were all tweeting about it.

I can’t believe it’s been almost seven years since these two fought. At first, as time went by, I was like, ‘Yeah, let it cook. Time will make this trilogy bigger.’ But now I’m starting to worry this one may have expired or even gotten away.

Diaz fought out his UFC contract and McGregor is still with the company. That alone is a huge roadblock. Also, this year Diaz turns 38 and McGregor 35 – time is running out, at least in the sense of still being able to witness a high-level fight.

I see 2023 as the year this fight NEEDS to happen. It would be a real shame if these two never fought a third time and a big loss to the MMA world. Their trash talk was great, and their clash of styles was fun. These two were made to fight each other. I don’t know how, but this fight needs to happen this year.

Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones

Do I really need to explain this one?

A championship showdown betweenFrancis Ngannou and Jon Jones for the undisputed UFC heavyweight title is awesome from any angle you want to look at it, and easily, the biggest fight you can make in 2023.

Historically speaking, you’re talking about arguably the greatest fighter to ever walk this earth facing the biggest and scariest heavyweight in the history of the sport.

Jones has long competed for the GOAT spot in many people’s eyes against Georges St-Pierre. The argument many make, is that GSP has a title in a second division, Jones does not. Well, if he were to defeat Ngannou, I really do think he could change the mind of many when it comes to the GOAT conversation. It would be a legacy-defining accolade.

There’s also an element of doubt here on both sides.

Ngannou had a pretty bad knee injury, bad enough that it required surgery last time we saw him. He might not ever be the same after that, many athletes aren’t.

And on the Jones side of things, he was having too-close-for-comfort fights before he relinquished his title. Who knows if he was on an actual decline or just bored with the level of competition. Also, how is Jones going to look with a much bigger frame after three years of inactivity?

These are all very compelling questions that won’t get answered until these two fight. The doubts, the size of the fight, what’s on the line, just everything about this fight is great. I really hope Ngannou gets what he wants and re-signs with the UFC. It would suck if we were to miss out on this fight.

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